Joel Landy, owner of Cass City Cinema, is a blond-mopped hippie built like a noodle; his thick mustache completely encloses his lips, and his hands are discolored in a car-mechanic-for-life kind of way (he was for 25 years) that suggests he's not kiddin' around when he says he's a workhorse.
The 59-year-old Landy owns the 36,000-square-foot Burton International School. Not long after he purchased the place, in 2009, he rented it to the gents behind the Burton Theatre, a crew of four whose vision was to open an eclectic movie house. It was a good use of the space, it was good for the Cass Corridor, and, besides, Landy says, the building was set to be demolished after years of inactivity.
But the relationship between Landy and the Burton group soured, and, last May, the enigmatic art house, which sits in the former school's auditorium, closed after an 18-month run.
"We loved the Burton space and wanted to keep our operation there, but unfortunately couldn't continue to operate without being able to negotiate a long-term lease," says Jeff Else, one of Burton Theatre's organizers, in an e-mail. "After operating in good faith for eight months on a verbal agreement proposed by Joel Landy ... [he] submitted to us a draft lease in an amount roughly twice that of the original agreement. ... We could not negotiate any compromise between the two amounts, and so chose to cease operations in the space. Further, we had a vision for the theater and the space that could not be realized with the limitations imposed by the building ownership."
The Burton is basically relocating to Corktown, under a new name.
Landy, who didn't comment much on the split except to say the two parties couldn't agree to a lease, says he was pleased the Burton sustained operations for as long as it did.
Landy, a high school dropout who earns his living as a property owner and landlord (four schools and nearly 50 other buildings in the Burton School's immediate area, he says), quietly reopened the theater Halloween weekend with a new name, crew and outlook.
Cass City Cinema (the name reprises a popular Detroit independent film series of the '70s and '80s) is looking to continue the fresh cinema experience for Detroit established by the Burton Theatre, but with broader programming (mixing Hollywood and art house fare), a new screen (theater No. 2 is under construction in the basement gymnasium) and an upgrade to the overall setup, including surround sound.
To open as the Cass City, Landy went out and purchased enough state-of-the-art equipment to rival almost any AMC or Emagine.
"I like to call this 'the theater eBay built,'" he teases, rattling off a laundry list of capabilities in the theater's new equipment.
At the base of the first set of stairs leading to the auditorium, a room will be renovated into a new box office and concession stand. The narrow space will double as an antique camera museum — Landy has collected more than 25 — the oldest from 1902.
Although turnouts have been relatively low so far, the new staff of five — some with little or no experience — is enthusiastic nonetheless.
To manage the place, Landy hired 24-year-old Ben Friedman, a recent University of Michigan grad with a degree in film and business.
"I knew it was a dream to run a movie theater, but I didn't know how to put it together, [nor did I have] the thousands of dollars to do so," Friedman says.
Local filmmaker Ed Gardiner, who's known for his movie presentations at the Russell Industrial Center, handles programming.
Although he admits he initially had no clue how to make a theater go ("I've never even served popcorn before"), Landy's the house technician. The man could go key-for-key with any janitor.
"I have to be independent," Landy says. "You know, Sunday night, if I have a problem I gotta be able to fix it. So, I'm the hardware store and the cinema supply store."
The initial transition from the Burton Theatre's closing to Cass City Cinema's soft opening on Halloween took about three months, ensuring the updated setup was assembled and everything worked properly.
Friedman, who frequently attended the Burton Theatre, couldn't be happier about the former theater's reopening in Corktown, regardless of any potential competition.
"I loved what they did, I thought it was amazing," he says. "I think that it's so important that nobody is the only theater in town."
The Burton Theatre team spent the summer sporadically showing films at various venues including the Russell Industrial Center and the Tashmoo Biergarten. They are now raising money to open as the Corktown Cinema, using Detroit Big F Deal, a local project-funding site similar to Kickstarter. Else says they're shooting to be fully operating by February or March. That theater will be located at 2051 Rosa Parks Blvd. as part of a developing 100,000-square-foot hub — at the former Lincoln Brass Works Foundry — for businesses in the neighborhood
Already the Huffington Post's new Detroit bureau has set up shop in the enormous space, and plans include the prospect of eateries, a record store, a book store and more.
"Patrons should expect the same strange blend of art-house, foreign, cult, weird programming that [the Burton Theatre] had been honing," Else says. "That program was continually evolving as we got a better sense of our audience, and will continue to evolve in our new home."
Both Friedman and Landy reiterate that the Cass City Cinema's purpose is to be community-driven, which they described as choosing certain types of programming relative to the local area as well as keeping the cost affordable.
To them, the standard $5 admission coupled with the presentation of the classic theater itself is one way of offering a pleasant experience.
And yes. The billiards table is still in the men's bathroom.
Coming up at
Cass City Cinema
Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 12-15: Take Shelter Jeff Nichols's 2012 Oscar contender starring Michael Shannon (FBI agent Agent Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire) and Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, Help).
Thursday-Sunday Jan. 19-22: Crumb Terry Zwigoff's 1994 doc about trailblazing comic-book writer-artist oddball Robert Crumb and his family. To coincide, Cass City Cinema hosts "Crumb Universe," which includes guest appearances from Carl Lundgren and Gary Grimshaw.
Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 26-29: The Skin I Live In Winning Pedro Almodóvar film about an obsessive plastic surgeon starring Antonio Banderas.
Coming in February: Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975 with an art opening of '60s black political art. Also, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.
Cass City Cinema, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-281-8301; casscitycinema.com.